By KATIE HOOS
Proposed legislation to increase the minimum age to purchase cigarettes in Westchester County from 18 to 19 aims to reduce young smokers’ access to tobacco products and, in turn, improve residents’ health, but some critics of the bill say, if passed, the legislation would cause more harm than good.
Initiated last month by county Legislator Catherine Borgia, the Democratic majority leader from Ossining, supporters of the bill argue it would make it harder for young people to obtain tobacco products and reduce the accessibility of tobacco on high school campuses. Borgia said by raising the minimum purchasing age by one year, there would be less of a chance for younger high school students to have access to cigarettes since the majority of students finish high school by age 18.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 480,000 people die each year as a result of tobacco use and, on average, smokers die 13 to 14 years earlier than nonsmokers. The department estimates nearly nine out of 10 smokers pick up the habit before the age of 18, and 98 percent of smokers start smoking by age 26.
“It’s time to make it harder in Westchester for our young people to access cigarettes,” Borgia said. “Increasing the age for tobacco purchase to 19 in Westchester is a good start in fighting the smoking epidemic and ensuring a healthier future for all of our residents.”
While some local legislators advocate for increasing the minimum age, opponents do not see how the bill would be beneficial or even effective.
James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, said if the legislation were to pass, it would not limit young smokers’ access to tobacco products and would only lead them to find alternative ways to get cigarettes.
“Proponents of the law say it intends to prevent youth access to tobacco products, and if the only option or source was a store that enforced the purchase age, it would work,” Calvin said. “But that’s just not the reality.”
Calvin said younger smokers predominately get tobacco from older relatives, friends and acquaintances, not retail stores, and the law would only encourage the purchase of bootleg, untaxed cigarettes from street dealers.
When stores cannot legally sell to 18 year olds, Calvin said, “all you’re doing is chasing tobacco sales to the untaxed, unlicensed side of the street and that’s a lose-lose-lose situation. Stores lose business, the state and county lose revenue, and it defeats the public health policy objective.”
Calvin, who could not say whether or not the legislation would impact the number of jobs in the county, did say storeowners might see a drop in revenue.
“Mom and pop single store enterprises are struggling and continue to struggle. They can’t afford to lose any additional sales,” he said.
While some opponents criticize the bill’s impact on businesses and its overall effectiveness, Greg Santone, owner of Rocky’s Millwood Deli, expressed his support for the legislation.
Santone, a Millwood resident, has owned the 24-hour deli located at 235 Saw Mill River Road since 1980 and, around eight years ago, made the decision to stop selling cigarettes entirely.
“I’m pretty religious and spiritual and I was a local fire chief,” Santone said. “I’m in the business of trying to help people and my conscience bothered me making money selling cigarettes.”
Explaining the negative health effects and fire danger cigarettes pose as the reasoning behind his decision, Santone said he hasn’t seen many negative reactions to his decision to forgo cigarette sales.
“For most part, people have been supportive. Even smokers are very supportive,” he said. “I even got a letter from a smoker that said ‘Thanks in part to you, I stopped smoking.’”
Santone said even though his business loses an estimated $50,000 a year in profits by not selling tobacco, he still believes it is the right thing to do.
The county’s proposal follows similar legislation already enacted in surrounding areas including New York City, which adopted legislation raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 last October.
Suffolk and Nassau counties in Long Island currently enforce a minimum purchase age of 19, and Suffolk County passed a law last month that would raise the limit to 21 as of January 2015.
Democratic legislators, including Chairman Michael Kaplowitz, Majority Whip Lyndon Williams, Alfreda Williams, MaryJane Shimsky and Catherine Parker are also sponsoring the legislation, which will have to pass in the state Senate and Assembly to become law.